Node.js is a server-side JavaScript platform “for easily building fast, scalable network applications”. It’s built on Google’s V8 JavaScript engine and uses an (almost) entirely async event-driven processing model, running in a single thread. If you’re new to Node and your reaction is “why would I want to run JavaScript on the server side?”, this is the headline answer: in 150 lines of JavaScript you can build a Node.js app which works as an accelerator for WCF REST services*. It can double your messages-per-second throughput, halve your CPU workload and use one-fifth of the memory footprint, compared to the WCF services direct.

Well, it can if: 1) your WCF services are first-class HTTP citizens, honouring client cache ETag headers in request and response; 2) your services do a reasonable amount of work to build a response; 3) your data is read more often than it’s written. In one of my projects I have a set of REST services in WCF which deal with data that only gets updated weekly, but which can be read hundreds of times an hour. The services issue ETags and will return a 304 if the client sends a request with the current ETag, which means in the most common scenario the client uses its local cached copy. But when the weekly update happens, then all the client caches are invalidated and they all need the same new data. Then the service will get hundreds of requests with old ETags, and they go through the full service stack to build the same response for each, taking up threads and processing time. Part of that processing means going off to a database on a separate cloud, which introduces more latency and downtime potential.

We can use ASP.NET output caching with WCF to solve the repeated processing problem, but the server will still be thread-bound on incoming requests, and to get the current ETags reliably needs a database call per request. The accelerator solves that by running as a proxy – all client calls come into the proxy, and the proxy routes calls to the underlying REST service. We could use Node as a straight passthrough proxy and expect some benefit, as the server would be less thread-bound, but we would still have one WCF and one database call per proxy call. But add some smart caching logic to the proxy, and share ETags between Node and WCF (so the proxy doesn’t even need to call the servcie to get the current ETag), and the underlying service will only be invoked when data has changed, and then only once – all subsequent client requests will be served from the proxy cache.

I’ve built this as a sample up on GitHub: NodeWcfAccelerator on sixeyed.codegallery. Here’s how the architecture looks:

The code is very simple. The Node proxy runs on port 8010 and all client requests target the proxy. If the client request has an ETag header then the proxy looks up the ETag in the tag cache to see if it is current – the sample uses memcached to share ETags between .NET and Node. If the ETag from the client matches the current server tag, the proxy sends a 304 response with an empty body to the client, telling it to use its own cached version of the data. If the ETag from the client is stale, the proxy looks for a local cached version of the response, checking for a file named after the current ETag. If that file exists, its contents are returned to the client as the body in a 200 response, which includes the current ETag in the header. If the proxy does not have a local cached file for the service response, it calls the service, and writes the WCF response to the local cache file, and to the body of a 200 response for the client. So the WCF service is only troubled if both client and proxy have stale (or no) caches.

The only (vaguely) clever bit in the sample is using the ETag cache, so the proxy can serve cached requests without any communication with the underlying service, which it does completely generically, so the proxy has no notion of what it is serving or what the services it proxies are doing. The relative path from the URL is used as the lookup key, so there’s no shared key-generation logic between .NET and Node, and when WCF stores a tag it also stores the “read” URL against the ETag so it can be used for a reverse lookup, e.g:

Key Value
/WcfSampleService/PersonService.svc/rest/fetch/3 “28cd4796-76b8-451b-adfd-75cb50a50fa6”
“28cd4796-76b8-451b-adfd-75cb50a50fa6” /WcfSampleService/PersonService.svc/rest/fetch/3

In Node we read the cache using the incoming URL path as the key and we know that “28cd4796-76b8-451b-adfd-75cb50a50fa6” is the current ETag; we look for a local cached response in /caches/28cd4796-76b8-451b-adfd-75cb50a50fa6.body (and the corresponding .header file which contains the original service response headers, so the proxy response is exactly the same as the underlying service). When the data is updated, we need to invalidate the ETag cache – which is why we need the reverse lookup in the cache. In the WCF update service, we don’t need to know the URL of the related read service – we fetch the entity from the database, do a reverse lookup on the tag cache using the old ETag to get the read URL, update the new ETag against the URL, store the new reverse lookup and delete the old one.

Running Apache Bench against the two endpoints gives the headline performance comparison. Making 1000 requests with concurrency of 100, and not sending any ETag headers in the requests, with the Node proxy I get 102 requests handled per second, average response time of 975 milliseconds with 90% of responses served within 850 milliseconds; going direct to WCF with the same parameters, I get 53 requests handled per second, mean response time of 1853 milliseconds, with 90% of response served within 3260 milliseconds. Informally monitoring server usage during the tests, Node maxed at 20% CPU and 20Mb memory; IIS maxed at 60% CPU and 100Mb memory.

Note that the sample WCF service does a database read and sleeps for 250 milliseconds to simulate a moderate processing load, so this is *not* a baseline Node-vs-WCF comparison, but for similar scenarios where the service call is expensive but applicable to numerous clients for a long timespan, the performance boost from the accelerator is considerable.

* – actually, the accelerator will work nicely for any HTTP request, where the URL (path + querystring) uniquely identifies a resource. In the sample, there is an assumption that the ETag is a GUID wrapped in double-quotes (e.g. “28cd4796-76b8-451b-adfd-75cb50a50fa6”) – which is the default for WCF services. I use that assumption to name the cache files uniquely, but it is a trivial change to adapt to other ETag formats.